When the Curies announced their discovery of radium in 1898, the world took note–and not just the scientific community. Many uses were proposed for the gently glowing substance, from toothpaste to house paint. The Curies themselves began investigating radium’s possible medical uses, while the less scrupulous rushed the product immediately to market as a cure for anything that ailed consumers, whether the complaint was acne or heart disease or anything in between.
|“La Loïe Fuller,” Henri Toulose-Lautrec
One figure who was particularly fascinated by radium’s potential was Loïe Fuller, a famous dancer at the Folies-Bergère. Born and raised just outside Chicago, Mary Louise Fuller had made a name for herself as an actress on the vaudeville circuit. By the time she arrived in Europe, however, her focus had shifted from acting to dance, and she was already well known for her Serpentine Dance, which she had begun performing in 1891. While touring in France, Fuller found the audiences particularly receptive to her work, and she chose to remain in Paris, changing her stage name from Louie to Loïe Fuller. She became a star attraction at the Folies, where her innovative technique and colorful performances won her the devotion of the crowd. Fuller’s image, as depicted by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and other notable artists of the time, adorned the famous posters of Paris.
Loïe Fuller saw radium as an artistic medium. The style of dance for which she was famous involved wildly swinging and shaking her billowing gown under colored lights, to give the illusion that her gown changed color as she danced. She had already conducted experiments with Thomas Edison using phosphorescent salts on a black dress, and had relished the effect: her veil, when thrown into the air, “disappeared in the darkness and only the falling luminous drops were seen elongated in their descent taking on the form of great violet blue tears…these things looked ethereal, spiritual, and made me feel in touch with the supernatural.” Now Loïe realized that radium, with its gentle glow, could produce an even more enchanting effect.
Loïe Fuller’s famous Danse Serpentine.
But the Curies turned her down. Radium was too rare, they felt–after all, it had taken them months of work to produce even a small amount of the substance. There were other things that could be done with it, better uses that could be made.
Loïe must have been disappointed. But, as Lauren Redniss points out in Radioactive, she bore her disappointment well: “A moth to the Curies’ flame, Loïe Fuller came to dance in their home.” (Redniss 64)
To learn more about Loïe Fuller, check out these resources:
Loïe Fuller’s autobiography: Fifteen Years of a Dancer’s Life, with some account of her distinguished friends (Library catalog)
Loïe Fuller biography at Time Lapse Dance
Electric Salome: Loïe Fuller’s Performance of Modernism, Rhonda K. Garelick (Library catalog)
Loïe Fuller, Goddess of Light, Richard Nelson Current (Library catalog)
Brooke Williams, GBR graduate student